Jack O’Connell (Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix)

From its title (“Wisdom of the Horse”) on down, Godless’s third episode is full of horse shit. I don’t mean that it’s bad! I just mean that in terms of story and screentime, it is simply consumed by shit about horses. Roping horses. Breaking horses. Riding horses. Falling off horses. Getting back on horses. Searching for missing horses. Worrying about abused horses. If you’re a Dothraki screamer or a Rider of Rohan, then boy oh boy have I got the episode for you. The rest of us? I dunno, pardner.

I realize that there are big fans of horse-related storytelling and image-making out there — I come from A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fandom and can name a few vocal fans like that off the top of my head. It stands to reason that genres like Westerns or fantasy would attract such folks, given the omnipresence of the animals in such narratives. And it’s foolish to deny the grandeur and adventure evoked by a lone rider shot against wide open country, or a chase sequence that depicts the animals’ unique combination of power and grace while also showcasing the scenery through which they move, or the way putting a character on horseback is a way to turn good guys and bad guys into the kinds of characters who merit capital letters for those descriptors.

You get all of that in this episode, for sure. In the crackerjack cold open, Sheriff Bill McNue arrives at the canyon where mass murderer Frank Griffin lost his fateful shootout with his runaway underling Roy Goode. As the Sheriff reconstructs what must have happened, flashbacks offer us a bird’s eye view of the Griffin gang’s hot pursuit of the apostate that are absolutely epic in scale, like Lord of the Rings with rifles. Elsewhere, mounting up gives young lawman Whitey Winn a sense of innate authority even when it’s relentlessly undercut by all of his elders, which is a good thing for the character; he seems like a pretty alright guy, and just positioning him up high offers him the dignity that everyone from the women of La Belle to the “buffalo soldier” veterans of the nearby African-American settlement Blackton can’t help but jokingly strip the dude of. On the flipside, it makes the villainous Quicksilver Mining security chief Logan seem like a legit threat as well as just a racist, sexist, bullying, animal-abusing creep. (He is all of those things too, though; when Godless gives you bad guys, then by god they’re gonna be bad in every way possible.)

Beyond that, though, the horses start to lose their luster. Roy is shown first breaking his employer Alice’s wild herd, then training her son Truckee how to ride, at tedious length. The heroic score, the close-ups on the admiring faces of Alice and her mother-in-law, and the “movie your grandparents go to at the Sunday matinee” uplifting dialogue all indicate these are supposed to be moments of magic and wonder; to me they felt like a more pretentious version of teaching a kid how to ride a bike, or trying to get your third grader’s shoes on their feet so you can get them to school on time in the morning. I can buy the idea that there’s some inherent excitement in many of the basic Western tropes, but horse whispering is where the genre and I part ways, I guess.

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Still, there’s plenty of entertainment to be found in Godless’s now-standard 70-minute running time. We already covered Sheriff McNue’s mental reenactment of Roy and Frank’s thrilling chase. Back home, Bill’s sister Maggie (Merrit Wever, series MVP thus far) has utterly charming scenes with her buddy Whitey in his squalid shack (“Christ Almighty, empty that goddamn thunder mug!”), and with her girlfriend Callie Dunne, whose story of the time she first laid eyes on Maggie is all infatuated romantic bliss. In Blackton, a few more familiar faces from other shows join the cast, including Jessica Sula (a Skins veteran, like Roy Goode actor Jack O’Connell), Erik LaRay Harvey (marvelous as Dunn Purnsley on Boardwalk Empire, wasted as Diamondback on Luke Cage), and Netflix utility player Rob Morgan (Daredevil, Luke Cage, The Defenders, The Punisher, Stranger Things, Mudbound).

Best of all, we get another of those sumptuously staged appearances by Frank Griffin and his men. In a scene shot and lit like something out of The Godfather, Marshall John Cooke (Sam Waterston, whom we’re sadly never gonna see in a shootout) stops in a saloon after hours for a drink during his pursuit of the bandits, only for one of them to strike a match in the darkness behind him and reveal that they’ve all been lying in wait the whole time. Once again, Frank is seated as comfortably as you please, like he’s a fact of life in no fear of contradiction anytime soon — least of all from the now-late lawman, who takes a bullet right to the head as he stands at the bar. “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,” ran the Godfather line pertaining to a similar execution. I think I can guess which animal the good Marshall will joining in his eternal slumber.


Stray observations

  • “Man who did all the fancy shooting—you recall what he looked like?” “Like death.” “Ah. Could you be more specific?”
  • I was happy to see the return of the Norwegian settlers from the previous episode, mostly because that meant Frank hadn’t murdered them all. But it also gave the woman he raped, who miraculously survived firing a rifle at him afterwards, a chance to help justice catch up with him when she tips off Sheriff McNue as to his likely destination. “You find them, Sheriff. You find them and you kill them all.” To quote a guy from another show about a killcrazy gunslinger named Frank, “Yeah, I can live with that.”
  • Today we learn that the town of La Belle has not one but two mentally ill residents everyone comments on as they roam around but no one does much about: John Doe, the lone, brain-damaged survivor of the mining catastrophe that claimed most of the town’s men, and a millionaire wife of a German beer magnate who rides around town in the altogether, Lady Godiva style. Which is another thing you can do with horses, I guess.
  • One of the leading townsfolk is Charotte Temple, owner of La Belle’s fancy hotel, Maggie’s frienemy, and the kind of character whose job it is to be wrong about absolutely everything. First she okayed the obviously bad deal with Quicksilver for the town’s claim, now she’s making goo-goo eyes at Logan, a dude who couldn’t be a more obvious sociopath if he were delivering a speech about Huey Lewis & the News in a plastic rain poncho. It’s always tough to watch a predictable cipher take up a spot where a real character could be constructed.
  • Roy’s learning to read from Alice, with an assist from Callie Dunne’s schoolbooks; his repetition of the phrase “buzz, buzz, buzz, this is the song of the bee” over Marshall Cooke’s murder at the end of the episode is a creepily subtle callback to the swarm covering Frank’s severed arm in the previous installment. Buzz buzz indeed.

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